By Chesi Lumasia
I am in that wistful mood that sends one searching in all manner of places to assuage depressing melancholy. I get onto Facebook and pictures of home are just the necessary and sufficient anodyne I crave. Relieved, I wander about and stumble on Cartoon254. I am home proper: code +254. The page asks me if I “want awesome artistic profile pics or […] to print out and frame […] photo(s), [or get my] photo(s) done in a high quality awesome, cool looking cartoon style artwork.” The cartoon artwork on the page is indeed awesome. I want. But wait!
Further down I encounter this:
Awesome, isn’t it? I am a Manchester United fan, and of late, the English team has been performing dismally both in the premiership and the Uefa Champions League. There are rumors of a fallout between the manager and the players, especially the French World Cup winning skipper Paul Pogba. The players are therefore said to be on a sabotage mission: to put the manager down, drive him out!
But what catches my attention more is the Kenyan subtext in the comic strip. Whenever Kenyans are aggrieved and happen to take to the streets, they chant “Haki yetu”, Kiswahili for our rights. The interpretation is, they are within their rights to demonstrate, and it is their rights that are being violated, and it is their rights they want respected; and it is their right to have the grief addressed, and immediately. So, it is basically the Kenyan fans who are protesting Jose Mourinho’s undesired stay. Manchester alongside Arsenal football clubs enjoy a near-fanatical following in the country. The fans want Mourinho’s contract with the club, and by extension them, who suffer the pains of serial defeats, trashed: MOU MUST GO. MOU stands both for Mourinho in short and Memorandum of Understanding. It is that document among Kenya’s political class which is entered between and among individuals and parties before every general election, only to be dishonored when the winner assumes the presidency. The most memorable, that has given currency to this understanding, is that signed between Mwai Kibaki – Kenya’s third president – and Raila Odinga, the country’s so-called opposition chief in the run up to the 2002 general elections. Raila Odinga was to become executive prime minister in fast tracked constitutional changes to create the position that was then nonexistent. Kibaki rubbished the MOU on assuming the presidency.
Thus, it is not only Pogba and colleagues resisting Mourinho’s stay, Kenyan fans too are ridiculing the Portuguese. What makes him ‘the special one’ as he is nicknamed? Fellaini’s placard: FREE OH-BAD-OH is double bound. Read against the HAKI YETU text, it suggests, on one hand, the situation is so bad, the players demand to be freed from Mourinho’s hold. On the other hand, it is the residents of Migori county – one of the 47 administrative units in Kenya – who want their governor, one OBADO freed from remand. He is being held in connection with the murder of one Sharon Otieno, a slay queen of a university student who was buried last saturday in her home county of Homa Bay. Intriguingly, there have been demonstrations to this end in the said county: Haki yetu (our rights)! The governor was released 24/10/2018 on bail.
There he goes Governor Okoth Obado. See how he hits the road running to his base! He is so enthralled that his street rating has gone up. Come 2022 when Kenya goes to the polls again, he will surely be on the ballot. This time for the presidency though. Don’t we celebrate and elect antiheroes into high office? Ha! He has a word for one Jowi (below) who is being held for murder too, alongside his fiancée, Jackie Maribe (a television news anchor) as accomplice. Investigative authorities have it that Jowi (Joseph Irungu) raped his victim before killing her, and left all the evidence pointing in his direction. The two have been denied bail, though Maribe’s employer, Citizen TV, backed it up on 25/10/2018, even as live court proceedings were discontinued on television.
There is the television queen, Jackie Maribe, a 2017 Head of State Commendation awardee tightly held by one of Kenya’s foremost politicians – Member of Parliament for Gatundu South, Kenya’s fourth president’s home constituency. The man on the left is her ex-boyfriend who is wondering why the lady did not stick to him like glue. Petrified, Jowi looks on, even as the honorable member holding onto the queen, inquires about the visiting hours to her holding jail, Langata Women’s G.K Prison. Simultaneously, he is marveling at how beautifully arresting she is to the extent that men, read Jowi, shoot themselves over her. The wound on the fiancé’s shoulder was self-inflicted by a gunshot! This topic is arguably not so easy to otherwise communicate, yet, Facebook makes it so easy via cartoons. Motara’s audience have the message at the click of a button and the touch of a finger.
In short, Facebook, new media of the social media cadre, affords the cartoon artist a platform to explore a wide range of topics in the public domain quite easily, affordably and fast. The cartoonist sketches the cartoon visuals which he fills with color to imbue with life to drive his point home. He makes the cartoon live to its power of making understanding of ‘difficult’ ideas easy and exciting. So fast and flexible are cartoons that through them, the artist is able to address ‘urgent’ issues with the desired immediacy accorded by Facebook. We can only imagine how long it would take the ‘old’ literary genres of poetry, fiction and drama to do this! Supported by text, these strips communicate powerfully, effectively.
I text the page on Facebook messenger. Standardly, a response should come through in an hour, says the page. I am in luck though. In twenty minutes, the page’s administrator politely texts me back. I realize texting will not serve me well. So, I ask him if I can call to him via another social media platform, WhatsApp messenger, a subsidiary of Facebook, to which he consents and grants me a ten minute interview.
Mr. Magingi Motara, the sole face behind Cartoon254, is a young man who will be turning 32 in January next year. He was born in Kenya’s coastal city Mombasa, where he went to primary school before moving to Nakuru, in the central Rift Valley for his secondary school education. He attended college in Nairobi, where he is currently based. Mr. Motara informs me that he began drawing cartoon sketches at a very tender age, and as he matured, he envisioned himself as a mainstream media cartoonist like Gaddo and Maddo (Kenya’s leading cartoonists in The Standard and Daily Nation newspapers respectively, upon completing school. His model, however, was John Kiarie, popularly known as KJ, who was running a cartoon series called Head on Corrishon in the Daily Nation. KJ was also a member of the Reddykyulass trio of Walter Mong’are and Tonny Njuguna who broke the ground for televised (satirical) comedy in Kenya in the 1990s upon liberalization of the media. He is now a member in Kenya’s twelfth Parliament.
Beginning 2002 upon completing high school, Mr. Motara applied to numerous media houses for the position of cartoon artist. Sadly, he received not even a regret up to as late as 2006. Not to be discouraged, he kept sketching cartoons and comic strips on paper until 2013 when he acquired his first laptop computer, on which he learnt to draw. By 2006, when social media was just opening up opportunities unknown before, he was ready to try out his trade on Facebook. His sketches were amateurish then, but he trudged on. He would address goings-on in society and trending issues.
Though he has a blog page www.cartoon254.co.ke and has presences on Twitter and Instagram, Motara says Facebook is his main platform and client base. It gave him his first in April this year, and so far the progress has been encouraging. Other clients have come, with the most significant being a Nigerian who runs a ‘Politics in Africa’ blog www.katakata.org. Motara does him cartoon images under the segment ‘The Torch.’ Motara’s other clients originate from as far afield as the United States of America and Switzerland, sporadically though. Business from publishers who want cover designs and book illustrations also comes calling.
Meanwhile, Mr. Motara still does what he does best: drawing individual and family portraits of Kenyans who want to enliven their pictures in cartoon artwork. He is not complaining. His Facebook page has at least a thousand likes. They keep growing by the day. He is able to pay his bills and is confident that many more talented artists can live by this trade on Facebook among other new media platforms. As he lives a day at a time, he will continue to explore the socio-cultural, economic and political issues of the day, which we, too, will continue to mine as street literature.